When I started learning grammar, I felt accomplished as I applied rules with ease, but I also felt something that the average person probably associates with grammar — boredom and confusion. Let’s face it, outside the copy desk, professional and academic writing circles, most people rarely think at length about the rules of the English language.
Grammar, unlike the need to communicate, is impersonal and predetermined by tradition and style guides. Because people can write and speak with varying degrees of rule-following, I wonder if we need grammar to communicate, or if it imposes itself unfairly on the structure of our thoughts.
As a word nerd, I tend to understand writing as the negotiation of two forces: the rushing streams of thought that we experience as our ideas take shape and we express ourselves freely, and on the other hand, the strict form and expectations prescribed by proper English. The first force fits an emotional need to connect with ourselves and the wider world by writing or speaking. The second determines the proper order and use for each part of speech so the message can be widely understood.
But the very fact grammar must be learned, while expressing thoughts often comes effortlessly, made me want to find writing that ditched conventions. My search for writers whose language read like a fluid thing in itself not wanting to conform to its own commandments, led me to my favorite writers such as Salinger, Orwell, Atwood and ultimately, to poetry.
The free-flow of thought I encountered while taking the African American Studies course Poetry for the People my sophomore year was the closest I have come to purely expressive language. I was thrilled by the license to break the rules. But to perfect my voice, I found myself cringing over how to break up each line, questioning every word choice, and eventually robbing my own work of its spontaneity through excessive editing. Poetic style began to fill the same role grammar filled in prose.
I realized that style and grammar are like frames on the windows of creative euphoria. They give the writer’s passions a shape for the audience to view. My pursuit of rule-breaking rhetoric taught me about varied writing choices, but getting better is a process. Even lack of punctuation or reversed word orders become rules of their own when overused.
Recently, my solution has been to write with a split mindset. The first is sporadic, energetic and only cares about spilling anything onto the page, proper grammar or not. The second tries to understand the first, refine its work, and yes, consult a stylebook. After dedicating many hours to poetry, I became a copy editor to get to know my other half.
Contact Keaton Peters at [email protected]